Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Title: The Autobiography of Upton Sinclair
Genre: Biography
Challenges: 100+, 101 Books in 1001 days, Book a Week, Fall into Reading, Obscure, Book Around the States
Rating: B
No. of pages: 350
Published: 1963
Date read: 9/26/08 - 12/8/08

This book may be obscure and the person writing it may have faded a bit from the scene yet his works live on and the impression he has made on the world is indelible. From The Jungle which dealt with the meat-packing operation of the early 1900s to Flivver King about the car industry of the 1930s, Upton Sinclair has become involved with and advised presidents and industry of the atrocities of our times. A prolific writer, Mr. Sinclair thoroughly researched his subjects whether it was politics, art, economics or society.

His accomplishments are endless. Among them are:

1. Through his research and book The Jungle he helped to clean up the meat industry. He met with President Theodore Roosevelt and reported the results of the investigations which followed. Laws were passed and enforced and affected the way meat comes to our tables.
2. In writing The Brass Check he helped bring about improvement in the newspaper industry, encouraging newspapermen to form a union thereby improving the quality of newspapers.
3. Together with his wife they were instrumental in helping promote an interest in the investigation of psychic phenomena which led to the establishment of the department of parapsychology at Duke University.
4. An end to the oppression of labor in California came about as a result of his skills in helping to organize the American Civil Liberties Union in New York and southern California.
5. He campaigned to end poverty in California (EPIC) which changed the whole reactionary tone of the state.
6. As a result of the effect he had on communism in Japan, students turned away from their communist leadership and chose the democratic process and friendship of America.
7. He began the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, now (as of 1963) the League of Industrial Democracy which had students educating the educators.

Besides his autobiography the only other books of his I’ve read are The Jungle and Dragon’s Teeth, the latter of which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1943. Sinclair’s writing is straight forward and easy to read. And I can say unequivocally that anything he’s written is worth reading.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

I thought John's idea of reading obscure books by wellknown authors was a fantastic one, even more so when my hunt for a suitable work turned up a detective story by the writer of Winnie-the-Pooh. The introduction to my edition tells me that this is the only crime novel Milne wrote, suggesting he fancied trying out the genre and, having cracked it, turned his thoughts elsewhere.

This is a classic country house murder, with houseparty assembled, garrulous servants and a murder behind a locked door. At breakfast the owner of the house, Mark Ablett, patron of the arts, announces the arrival that day of his brother from Australia, a ne'er do well who left for the colonies many years previously. Sending his guests off to play golf, he awaits his brother's arrival; shortly afterwards, the silence of a sultry summer's afternoon is broken by a gunshot, and Mark's cousin Cayley can be heard hammering on the locked door demanding that it should be opened.

Into this scenes strolls Anthony Gillingham, "an attractive gentleman" and friend of Bill Beverley, one of the guests at the Red House. Gillingham is something of a paradox, a hardworking dilettante, rich enough to please himself, he has moved from job to job, applying his intelligence to whatever takes his fancy and gaining experience in the ways of the world. When he and Cayley discover the body of Mark's brother they also find that there is no sign of Mark himself – he has disappeared apparently without trace.
Anthony and his friend Bill – an eager young man – set to with the intention of solving the mystery, Anthony explaining that, if they are to do the job properly, Bill must fulfill the proper role:
"Are you prepared to be the complete Watson?" he asked. "Watson?" [Bill] asked. "Do-you-follow-me-Watson; that one. Are you prepared to have quite obvious things explained to you, to ask futile questions, to give me chances of scoring off you, to make brilliant discoveries of your own two or three days after I have made them myself – all that kind of thing? Because it all helps." "My dear Tony," said Bill delightedly, "need you ask?" Antony said nothing and Bill went on happily to himself, "I perceive from the strawberry-mark on your shirt-front that you had strawberries for dessert. Holmes, you astonish me. Tut, tut, you know my methods. Where is the tobacco? The tobacco is in the Persian slipper. Can I leave my practice for a week? I can."
Now, if you don't like this sort of exchange, then The Red House Mystery is not for you. If Margery Allingham, Michael Innes or Dorothy Sayers are meat and drink to you, then you will love it for the little gem it is. As it says in the Introduction, it's as if Christopher Robin had grown up and become a detective. And Pooh has come along to help. I, of course, am desolated that Milne didn't start a series, as Tony and Bill could comfortably have taken their place alongside Lord Peter and Albert Campion.

Although The Red House Mystery is a little obscure it is by no means unobtainable. There is a nice edition by Dover Publications and it is soon to be reissued by Vintage Classics. Do try it!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Louisa May Alcott: A Long Fatal Love Chase

When it first appeared in print in 1995, it made a bit of a splash, even becoming a bestseller. Undoubtedly this was due to longtime fans of Alcott wanting to read the manuscript that had remained unpublished all these years. Alcott, of course, is best known for Little Women, and to a lesser extent Little Men and Jo's Boys. After reading A Long Fatal Love Chase, I'm pretty confident that the aforementioned books will remain the highlights of Alcott's legacy, and the latter will slip back into obscurity where it belongs; a footnote to her career.

Last August I posted 20 glaring omissions in my "have read" list. Since then I've knocked a few off that list (To Kill A Mockingbird, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Lolita, and Pride and Prejudice). And while I hope to someday get to the others, Little Women might remain unread. I saw the Winona Ryder movie version, and while I know you can't judge a book by its movie, I was so incredibly bored by it that I find it hard to face the book at all. I thought that at least I could knock Alcott from my list by reading A Long Fatal Love Chase.

What's surprising is that while I thought A Long Fatal Love Chase had more than its share of problems, being boring is surely not one of them. I'll admit, I read a few reviews of this before attempting it and I knew its reputation for being overly sensational. Still, when it opened with Rosamond declaring that she'd "gladly sell [her] soul to Satan for a year of freedom" and suddenly a stranger resembling Mephistopheles showed up, I was pleased. A bit over the top, I thought, but at least it wasn't dull. I was ready to be entertained, who cared what the critics said.

Oh but they were right.

As the story progressed, the stranger Tempest, conned Rosamind into believing they were married. When she finds out the truth, that the ceremony was a sham and that he is married already to another woman, Rosamind bolts and thus begins the long stupid love chase across Europe. I'm not averse to a stalking story. It could be written well, and as many have pointed out, seems to be a modern theme (though I'm sure stalking itself isn't a new phenomenon).

No, stalking isn't the problem, it's the melodrama, cheese, and artificiality of the writing. One of my major problems with Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code was his insistence of ending every chapter with a cliffhanger. At least he had the good sense not to also rely on exclamation points. This from the end of Chapter Six in Alcott's novel:
"With a sigh of relief she rose to her knees and was about to seat herself for an instant on a low mound behind her when, as the moon shone full through the swaying branches, she saw with a cry of terror that the mound was like a new-made grave!"
I'm not opposed to exclamation points per se, but Alcott threw them in for dramatic effect the way lame sitcoms add laughtracks for comedic effect.

Furthermore, it was hard to get a sense of any chase when Tempest had the uncanny ability to pop out of anywhere. At one point Rosamind has gone into a confessional, and who should be on the other side but Tempest. It seemed as if he was never more than ten feet away, but instead of adding tension, it just came across as silly when he'd pop out of nowhere like a whack-a-mole.

My last major beef with the book was the way characters explained their actions in vivid detail. It just didn't ring true when characters would rattle on filling in missing pieces of the plot.
"This last plot was Baptiste's; I knew nothing of it till he telegraphed to me to come on at once as you were ill but would not yield and purchase freedom at the price I set. I hurried away at once to find you gone, but Baptiste told me his plan and I was forced to be satisfied. He said your entreaties would have won him but for his vow to me. Wishing to serve us both, he permitted you to escape but sent a spy after you and followed by rail in time to be prepared for you here. He chanced to have a note sent..."
And this goes on and on.

But I shan't. A Long Fatal Chase was surprisingly entertaining, but ultimately a silly book.

The Soundtrack:
1. Two Steps Behind- Def Leppard
2. Remember You're Mine- Pat Boone
3. Escape- Enrique Iglesias
4. You Belong To Me- Dean Martin
5. Never Let You Go- Third Eye Blind

(Yes, I'm quite aware that there are much better stalking songs out there. But before anyone points me in the direction of The Police, Blondie, et al, I wanted a soundtrack as lame as the novel.)

Cross-posted at The Book Mine Set.

Friday, April 4, 2008

When In Yellowknife

I'm in Yellowknife today. I came here a few days ago in an attempt to buy a house. I failed. Feeling a little disappointed, (but not crushed, so reserve your sympathy please) I tried to head back to Iqaluit. It's only been a short time away, but I miss my family. Unfortunately, the weather in Iqaluit resulted in a cancelled flight and it looks like I'm here until Sunday.

Because of my lack of ability to entertain myself, I'm bored and now doing something I vowed not to do: begin another blog challenge. It's not like the challenge scene is over- saturated or anything (cough), but I wanted to devote all my attention to the Canadian Book Challenge.

Lately, however, I've been intrigued by obscure books. More than a few bloggers out there have mentioned books that I've never heard of written by authors of whom I thought I'd been well informed. I threw out the idea of hosting a challenge to highlight those shadowed books, hoping someone else would run with it. Alas, no. Which perhaps means no one's interested in participating either. I guess that'll remain to be seen. Anyway, to take the work away from me, I've decided to be more hands-off with this challenge than I am with the Canadian Challenge. All I'm committing to is giving permission for others to join this blog and write posts about their chosen books. Email me and I'll add your name to the member's roll.

It's just one measly book. You can do it. Throw it in with another challenge if you like. Steal the cheesy logo and help promote it.

Have fun uncovering those rarities!