Red Chair Listens: The Borough Treasurer

I keep telling myself, “No more mysteries with inane heroines!”  And then I go and blow it.  The latest: The Borough Treasurer by J. S. Fletcher, 1921.  It started out promisingly with a description of the town of Highmarket, its mayor Mr. Mallalieu, and his partner and the borough treasurer Mr. Cotherstone.  Enter the wily Mr. Kitely, former policeman turned blackmailer (a man has to eat, right?) who recognized Mallalieu and Cotherstone as a pair of embezzlers from 30 years ago . . . .  Murder, of course!

Mr. Kitely is dead, strangled like a pig, and Mallalieu and Cotherstone suspect each other without actually accusing each other of the crime.  Mr. Cotherstone tries to throw the suspicion on the mysterious Mr. Harborough: what is his alibi and why does he refuse to just come out with it?  And why does Mr. Brereton, young lawyer from London, suddenly decide that Mr. Harborough is innocent and he simply must defend him?  Well, OK, that last part is easy . . . .  One look at Avice Harborough, and Mr. Brereton is determined to prove her father’s innocence.  Meanwhile, Mr. Cotherstone has to make sure his past stays in the past, not the least because daughter Lettie is engaged to the wealthy Windle Bent, who is also Mr. Brereton’s best friend.  And rounding out the list of unsavory characters, there is Mr. Stoner, Cotherstone’s clerk and neophyte blackmailer, and Miss Pett, a woman with her own secrets to protect.

In the end, everything is explained, even the lamest red herring plot ever.  I do, however, appreciate the moral imperative that everyone gets what he/she deserves, even if the message could have been less heavy-handed.

IMG_3067Tula, waiting for it to be all over.

Red Chair Reads: Another Place and Time: Voices from the Carrisa Plains

Every two years, I play “literary critic” by volunteering as a preliminary reader for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.  Sounds grand, doesn’t it?  Actually, the long list takes all comers, which is how I ended up reading the totally execrable 33 Bits a few years back.  I may never recover from that experience.  Anyway, nothing since has even come close to being as bad as that book, but I keep thinking there must be a better mechanism for slamming the door on delusional writers.  Cross my fingers, but I have not encountered another Jane Bash since the 33 Bits debacle.

This year, my nonfiction choice was Another Place and Time: Voices from the Carrisa Plainsby Craig Deutsche.  I picked this book because I think local histories can provide wonderful material for literary nonfiction works, but the genre requires someone who not only knows how to write but who also understands that organization and ruthless editing are absolutely essential when dealing with oral histories.  Oral histories provide valuable glimpses of the past, but they can be difficult to handle.  Sometimes, boring stories are just boring stories, and putting them down on paper does not make them any less boring or repetitive. This book could have benefited from an editing that asked the critical question: Does this anecdote add to, or detract from, the main narrative?  Craig Deutsche is a reasonably competent writer with a natural, folksy style that worked well with the stories in the book; unfortunately, in his eagerness to tell us how he got from point A to point B, his voice began to compete with the “voices from the Carrisa Plains.”   Somewhere near the middle of the book, he made a too-many-pages detour into a seemingly endless search for the recorder of some oral history tapes he found.  It was ultimately a fruitless search, and the person he thought had made the tapes turned out not to be the recorder after all.  This section, as well as the “pause for assessment” interlude, seemed a self-indulgent chapter that should not have been included at all.  Neither of the chapters added anything substantive to the book.

Another problem with the book is the organization.  Craig Deutsche made a point of telling us that his book is not meant to be a straight history.  Fair enough.  I admit it, the historian in me thinks the book would have been more valuable if it had foot notes or end notes, a better index, a better reference section — in other words, more rigorous documentation.  But I can overlook all that, if only he had found a better way to organize the subjects.  I understand the difficulties of artificial boundaries: cowboys, shepherds, ranchers — there are overlaps in roles, in places, in time.  But it was frustrating to be reading about a particular person or family, only to have the subject be dropped with the note that “so-and-so” will be encountered again at some later chapter.  This was particularly glaring when Deutsch embarked on the search for the Van Mastre family, and wrote about the beginning of the journey in the chapter on the search for the oral history tapes recorder.  And then, for some inexplicable reason, he dropped the family until the end of the book.  Perhaps it was meant to be suspenseful, but it just added to the impression of disorganization and the feeling that perhaps the author should have been less ambitious with the scope of work.  The Van Mastre family could indeed have been the subject of a monograph all by themselves, a lens through which to view a particular history of agriculture in California.

I quibble about the scholarship but not the intent: the book is important for shedding light on a little-known piece of California history.  The author has made a truly remarkable effort to gather in one place the stories of a people and place, stories that highlight the resilience of pioneers as well as the sometimes ephemeral nature of human settlements.   And, perhaps unintended, the book is also a celebration of the life of the land, its resilience and its ability to absorb, and cast off, the efforts of man.  Someday I will go to the Carissa Plains;  perhaps I will hear the voices, but more likely, I will feel merely my own puny mortality.

You Mean, Aside from World War II?

The quote of the day, from reviewer “Shomeret,”commenting on Jacqueline Winspear’s Birds of a Feather on Goodreads (April  2012):

“Until recently I thought that World War I lacked any enduring significance.”


The reviewer is/was studying library science and has a book review blog.  I gave her credit for the “until recently” part of the sentence, which would seem to imply a change of heart.  Maybe she read some good history books, I thought.  But no.  She apparently changed her mind because “. . . . some of the most interesting historical fictions I’ve been reading this year take place during that period.”

She changed her mind because of works of HISTORICAL FICTION?!  Well, I guess it’s better than nothing.

Hey, Shomeret!  Ever heard of (among other things) the crippling reparations the Allies demanded of Germany after WWI, Hitler’s rise to power, the complete change in how wars were fought in the aftermath of the Great War, and a small event called WWII?

Of no enduring significance.  ARE YOU KIDDING ME???

BTW, I found Birds of a Feather tedious, and as others have noted, Winspear did not adhere to one of the cardinal rules of good mysteries: All clues, however obscure, must be available to the reader.  Sheesh.

Red Chair Reads: H. M. Pulham, Esquire

I no longer remember where I bought H. M. Pulham, Esquire, by John P Marquand.  It sat in my bookcase for a while, and I only remembered I had it when I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, and the title popped up in a throw-away line.  I finally got around to reading the book during my mini-vacation in the mountains — what better time and place, really, than in a snug cabin, feeling warm and secure while the wind howled outside?  And it was about security: Harry Pulham, brought up in security, decided on a life of security, a security defined and delineated by his class, his upbringing, his education, his job, his wife.  The couple of times he stepped outside himself — first for the Great War, then for Marvin (the girl who got away) — he did not quite know what to do with the new world order he saw and barely comprehended.  Harry was completely decent, and only wanted to do the right thing.  If he knew, vaguely, that he lost something along the way, one must always give him credit for being true to his essential self: the man who understood that it was right and honorable to sacrifice his dreams for the happiness of those he loved, and did so with minimal fuss.  In a defining scene, Harry’s father said, “It isn’t any news that any of us are going to die, but we like to think we’re going to be remembered.”  At the end of the book, Harry finally completed his life story for his class reunion, and it was indeed as conforming and banal as all the personal histories that had gone before him.  Harry knew he would not be remembered, and perhaps that was as it should be.

Do we really want to be remembered?  My book was owned by a Freda Jackson (signed  December 13, 1945) and by Winsor W. McLean, who must have liked the book enough to take it with him when moved from Los Angeles to Glendale, California.  Being a nosy historian, I naturally googled Winsor W. McLean, and ended up on the Wimberly family history site.  He was the only son of Neil McLean and Annie Laura Wimberly McLean, born in 1897 and named after the man who married his parents.  The family history website had a fair amount of information on Neil McLean, but nothing other than Winsor McLean’s birth and death dates.  But I love small coincidences: he died in 1974, in Van Nuys, California.  I imagine that perhaps at some point, I may have bumped into him.  Who knows?

Tula, thinking about H. M. Pulham, Esquire

Tula, thinking about H. M. Pulham, Esquire 

Red Chair Reads: The Fortnight in September

I love London (I’m with Dr. Johnson on this), and back when plane fares were a tad more affordable, I used to go once a year, usually by myself.  Six years ago, I took my family with me, and we rented a townhouse built at the end of the 17th century.  It was a great four-story house; it had saggy, creaky floors, and there was not one right angle anywhere in it.  It also had a full-size American style washer and dryer set, but that’s another story . . . .  The house was on Lamb’s Conduit Street, and was just a few buildings away from Persephone Books.  At the time, I had not heard of Persephone Books, but I was never one to pass up a bookstore — especially an interesting-looking one.

When we came home, I bought some used copies of various Persephone titles.  And I admit that three of those books are still in the TBR pile . . . .  Anyway, I finally read The Fortnight in September (1931) this past week.  Aside from being a period gem, it also has the distinction of being one of the few books published by Persephone Books that is not by a forgotten woman writer.  R. C. Sherriff (1896-1975) was an English writer who fought in World War I, and became best-known for Journey’s End, a play and book based on his experiences during the Great War.  He went Hollywood in the 1930s and wrote screenplays for movies such as The Invisible ManThat Hamilton Woman, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, but before all that he wrote The Fortnight in September.

Not much happens in the book: the lower middle-class Stevens family look forward all year to that most English of English holidays, their two weeks at the seaside.  The father has reconciled himself to the fact that he has advanced as far as he can in his small-fry firm, but perhaps it is all right after all, because he is further along than his father, and in turn, he can believe his son will go even further.  During those two weeks at Bognor Regis, other family members have their crystalline moments — the son who realizes that as unhappy as he is at work, he can be more; the daughter who has a moment of romance, and understands it for the “bit of fun” that it is; the wife who gives in to the pleasures of an hour of peace, an hour of doing nothing in a sitting room with her measured glass of port.  This is the life that the men in trenches dreamed about returning to; it is what makes the English, the everyday moments that are worth their loyalty, worth their lives.

CSA Share Week 13:  potatoes, onion, squash, green beans, Asian eggplants, Tuscan kale, purple bell pepper, strawberries, honeydew melon, eggs

Week 13 Recipes:  tomato/eggplant/squash tian; honeydew melon fruit salad; peach (fresh from Palisade, Colorado) bread pudding; sauteed Tuscan kale with white beans; warm green beans with tapenade of olives/heirloom tomato (grown by The Teenager)/grilled banana peppers (also grown by The Teenager)

Red Chair Reads: The Hampstead Mystery

Another long-winded but fun Edwardian-era mystery from 1916: The Hampstead Mystery, by Arthur J. Rees and John R. Watson.  A mysterious anonymous note delivered to the local police station announced the murder of Sir Horace Fewbanks, a justice of the High Court.  But he was supposed to be in Scotland, shooting poor little birds!  Clearly not, since he was most definitely dead in his own library at Riversbrook, a bullet hole in the heart.  And the race was on, with two Scotland Yard policemen, Detective Inspector Chippenfield and his subordinate Inspector Rolfe, vying with each other as well as with the inscrutable private detective Crewe (no first name) to find the murderer.

And just who is this Mr. Crewe?  He is of course a brilliant young man of private means who took up detecting as a means of relieving his boredom at being a rich young man with no occupation.  Of course, he could have had a reasonably gentlemanly occupation as a stellar chess master, having been the only one to beat the Russian player Turgieff during one of the master’s famous simultaneous games against twelve different players.  But, Crewe broke all the old-time chess aficionados’ hearts by retiring and going into detective work, of all things — and him a gentleman of presumably impeccable lineage.  I love books where characters say things like: “I know I can rely on his word as a gentleman.”  Ah, the great class divide.

Lots of red herrings in this mystery: a couple of ex-cons, a spurned mistress (the old judge apparently had a weakness for young women, not all of them ladies), a K.C. on the outs with his young wife, a French mademoiselle . . . .  Rees and Watson piled it on, and on, and on — the book could have been shorter, but the readers of a hundred years ago would probably have felt justifiably gypped.