Vile Bodies – Evelyn Waugh

Book # 659

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

Vile BodiesI first laid eyes on Vile Bodies back in 1989 while travelling through Europe on my OE with a friend from university.  It was my first time reading the very English wit of one of the Waugh family and I remember absolutely loving it.  It fit in with my penchant (then and now) for stories written or set between the two world wars.

This was all brought back to me when I pulled my copy off the bookshelf in order to revisit it this year.  As I opened the page, out fell two tiny pieces of paper.  One was for the Casa del Libro in Madrid and the other for the Paperback Exchange in Florence.  After so many years, I am unsure which was the supplier of my Waugh but I am grateful to whichever it was.

This satirical look at the era and goings-on of The Bright Young Things was first published in 1930.  It is the story of two young lovers, Adam Fenwick-Symes and Nina Blount.   They are part of the crazy, hedonistic set of young aristocrats known as the Bright Young People.  It is raw satire, with seemingly ridiculous goings-on and brilliantly silly character names.  I mean, you can’t go wrong with names like Miles Malpractice, Fanny Throbbing, Lottie Crump and Mrs Melrose Ape, can you?

At the very start of the novel we find Adam aboard the Channel ferry during a rough crossing and it is here that Waugh begins introducing us to some of the colourful characters he has created,

Other prominent people were embarking, all very unhappy about the weather; to avert the terrors of sea-sickness they had indulged in every kind of civilized witchcraft, but they were lacking in faith.
Miss Runcible was there, and Miles Malpractice, and all the Younger Set.  They had spent a jolly morning strapping each other’s tummies with sticking plaster (how Miss Runcible had wriggled).
The Right Honourable Walter Outrage, M.P., last week’s Prime Minister, was there.  Before breakfast that morning (which had suffered in consequence) Mr Outrage had taken twice the maximum dose of a patent preparation of chloral, and losing heart later had finished the bottle in the train.

Throughout the work there are passages of wonderfully expressive writing and the crossing of the Channel is one of them. Waugh describes it thus,

Sometimes the ship pitched and sometimes she rolled and sometimes she stood quite still and shivered all over, poised above an abyss of dark water; then she would go swooping down like a scenic railway train into a windless hollow and up again with a rush into the gale; sometimes she would burrow her path, with convulsive nosings and scramblings like a terrier in a rabbit hole; and sometimes she would drop dead like a lift.  It was this last movement that caused the most havoc among the passengers.

The main line of the story follows the ups and downs of Adam’s attempts to wed Nina.  As a writer he is hoping to get published until the customs men decide to confiscate and burn the one and only copy of his manuscript.  His great intention of being able to support a wife evaporates in that instant.  We then chase along behind him as he gains employment and then loses employment, approaches his future father-law for assistance and gets embroiled in all sorts of unexpected adventures.  All the while he and Nina are ‘on’ and ‘off’ again, before he faces the ultimate challenge of a rival in the form of Ginger Littlejohn.

It is at once cutting and full of caricatures.  The behaviour is over the top, the reckless abandonment of several of the characters and the whimsical choices made are both ridiculous and poignant.  It is as though the aftermath of World War I seemed to imbue a spirit of living totally in the moment with little regard for the outcome.  As a young woman I certainly thought it was extremely funny and crazy, but as an older adult I can now see a huge depth of poignance in the behaviour of the Bright Young Things.  I can now see the underlying sadness and the carelessness with life, as well as the humour.

At 220 pages, it is a snip of a read.  If you are a fan of writing about or during the Interwar period, then you will most probably appreciate this.  If you are not, you may still enjoy it as a somewhat exaggerated view of a time of past glories and excess.  The huge dose of humour will help it go down, but don’t be expecting a Wodehouse-style read, as it is nowhere near as gentle.

Happy reading.

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Book # 565

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

CRWhen I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men back in 2012 I meant to follow up immediately with this relatively slim novel.  Sadly I moved on and Cannery Row had to wait until now.

Let me start off the review by saying outright – I loved this.  Everything about it.  And my review may be overly glowing as a result.

The novel was first published in 1945 but it is set during the Great Depression.  Specifically it is set in Monterey, California and one particular avenue which is colloquially known as Cannery Row for it’s rows of sardine canneries*. It is the story of the locals on the Row.  Lee Chong is the local grocer and shopkeeper.  Dora Flood is the local Madam and owner of the misnamed Bear Flag Restaurant, where her girls are available to the local population.  Doc is a marine biologist who owns and lives in his workshop at Western Biological, and then there are Mack and ‘the boys’ – squatters in Lee Chong’s warehouse known as the Palace Flophouse and Grill.

The novel is barely a novel in the sense of having a plot.  Really it feels like a meander through the lives of these many and varied characters.  The thread that holds it all together are the ‘boys’ from the flophouse.  Mack, Hazel, Jones and Eddie pop up throughout and provide much of the entertaining reading.  But we are treated to vignettes of life amongst a range of locals, we are invited in to their lives and given an insight into the hard lives of the depression.

You would think that a novel set in the depression with the central characters being a group of bums would be, in itself, depressing.  You would be wrong.  Other than a few poignant sections, the joie de vivre that exudes from the pages belies the harshness of the struggle to put food on the table or a roof of some sort over their heads.   Steinbeck beautifully describes the lives and surroundings of these characters, so much so that you feel you can reach out and touch their them.  Here is how he introduces us to Doc’s laboratory:

Behind the office is a room where in aquaria are many living animals; there are also the microscopes and the slides and the drug cabinets, the cases of laboratory glass, the work benches and little motors, the chemicals.  From this room come smells – formaline, and dry starfish, and sea water and menthol, carbolic acid and acetic acid, smell of brown wrapping-paper and straw and rope, smell of chloroform and ether, smell of ozone from the motos, smell of fine steel and thin lubricant from the microscopes, smell of banana oil and rubber tubing, smell of drying wool socks and boots, sharp pungent smell of rattlesnakes, and musty frightening smell of rats.  And through the back door comes the smell of kelp and barnacles when the tide is out and the smell of salt and spray when the tide is in.

He continues to document Doc’s world in his library and kitchen, and then on to his person:

Doc is rather small, deceptively small, for he is wiry and very strong and when passionate anger comes on him he can be very fierce.  He wears a beard and his face is half Christ and half satyr and his face tells the truth.

And wonderful descriptions of this sort abound in this story about people.  But not to be outdone are the humorous pieces of observation, including this classic towards the end of the story when Mack and the boys (and entire neighbourhood) create a party for Doc:

The nature of parties has been imperfectly studied.  It is, however, generally understood that a party has a pathology, that it is a kind of an individual and that it is likely to be a very perverse individual.  And it is also generally understood that a party hardly ever goes the way it is planned or intended.  This last, of course, excludes those dismal slave parties, whipped and controlled and dominated, given by ogreish professional hostesses.  These are not parties at all, but acts and demonstrations, about as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting as its end product.

The humour exudes throughout the novel.  Even when the viewing is grim, there is the buoyancy of the human spirit, softening the edges and making the bizarre seem normal and even uplifting.

My edition is 136 pages long.  It’s not much, but it’s worth the effort.

Happy reading.

* according to Wikipedia the street that the novel is actually set in was Ocean View Avenue, but was later renamed to Cannery Row in honour of the story.

The Island of Dr Moreau – H.G.Wells


Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

TIODMThe Island of Dr Moreau was first published in 1896 and is another slim work at around 130 pages, requiring only a small investment of time to read.

The story is an unusual tale told by Edward Prendick of his shipwreck from the Lady Vain and the year that follows on from this.

After being adrift in the dinghy with two other survivors, who fight and perish as a result of doing so, he is spotted and collected up by the schooner Ipecacuanha.
He is nursed back from the brink of death by a passenger on board, Montgomery.  The captain is a drunkard and unpredictable.  When they reach the island where Montgomery, his very unusual manservant and his cargo of animals are being disembarked, the captain decides to set Prendick adrift once more.

Prendick finds himself, eventually, once more rescued by Montgomery and another man who in time we find is the eponymous Dr Moreau.  He lands on the island and is taken to an outer room of a compound that he finds is locked to him.

I followed him, and found myself in a small apartment, plainly but not uncomfortably furnished, and with its inner door, which was slightly ajar, opening into a paved courtyard.  This inner door Montgomery at once closed.  A hammock was slung across the darker corner of the room, and a small unglazed window, defended by an iron bar, looked out towards the sea.
This, the grey-haired man told me, was to be my apartment, and the inner door, which, ‘for fear of accidents’, he said, he would lock on the other side, was my limit inward.

Neither Montgomery nor Moreau explain anything about the animals, the ‘people’ that he observes, nor what keeps them in isolation from the rest of the world.  But it doesn’t take long for his observations to become concerns as he recognises Moreau’s name as belonging to that of a notorious vivisector and work begins within the locked enclosure on one of the cargo animals, a puma.  Prendick sums up his confusion thus,

What could it mean?  A locked enclosure on a lonely island, a notorious vivisector, and these crippled and distorted men? …

Indeed, what could it mean?  Well, you will have to read the novel to find out.

Yes, you will have to read it.  For me to give more information or specific quotes would take away some of the uncertainty and suspense that Wells builds up very nicely throughout the novel.

While I cannot say that I enjoyed reading the story, as it is not a salubrious topic, it was certainly gripping despite the scientific inaccuracies that are glaring to a modern eye.  In our minds, though, we could easily substitute the 19th century version of vivisection with other modern scientific ethical issues.  I think that is what makes this story such a timeless classic and fully deserving of its place on the 1001 list.
The ethical questions it raises, the statements it makes about how easily the abnormal can become normal, and about just how far is too far to go in the name of scientific curiosity, are still ones we confront today.

It is a quick and untaxing way to spend a few hours while also being immensely readable.  Fewer appearances of the word ‘incontinently’ makes it a vast improvement over The Time Machine, to be going on with, and more serious in it’s questioning nature makes it both interesting and thought-provoking.  All in all, I am happy recommending this to you.

Happy reading!

The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett

Book #660

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

TMFAnd finally we reach the last remaining Dashiell Hammett novel on the 1001 list. I can say, categorically, that I have enjoyed each and every one of them despite the great variance of topic and tale telling.
If you have missed them, I reviewed The Thin Man back in March and have completed the remaining three this month.  That would be Red Harvest, The Glass Key and today’s review of The Maltese Falcon.

Samuel Spade and the story of the Maltese Falcon is arguably Hammett’s best known work. It certainly was to me, with The Thin Man a distant second.  That could be a result of an earlier obsession with Humphrey Bogart films, of course, including the 1941 rendition of this story.

We meet Sam and his partner, Miles Archer, in their offices in San Francisco.  A young woman, Miss Wonderly, comes to hire them to follow a man who has supposedly run off with her younger sister.  The money is good, so they take her on.  Miles, with an eye to the pretty lady, says he will do it for her and does so.  Spade, on the other hand, thinks she looks like trouble.

Later that night Spade is rung by the police and told that Archer has been shot.  He goes down to the scene, but appears disinterested.  As the story progresses, it is clear that he is not fond of Archer and has been playing around with his wife, but he feels he owes it to his partner to find out the truth about his death.
Spade is not a particularly likeable character, is quite loose with the women in his life, but is smart, cunning and determined.  Hammett’s description of him is quite telling of his character.

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.  His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v.  His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal.  The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down – from high flat temples – in a point on his forehead.  He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

Spade ends up in the firing line from the police investigation when not only is Miles Archer murdered, but so is the man he was tailing – on the same night.
As the story progresses we find out that Miss Wonderly is not who she says she is, nor is her non-existent runaway sister real.  We find her to be Brigid O’Shaughnessy, a rather cunning liar and thief.  She also is not a particularly likeable character, especially from a modern woman’s perspective.  She sets her sights on Spade and embroils him in the cross and double-cross world of international thievery.  Along the way we meet the wonderful cast of characters that Hammett has created; Joel Cairo, Wilmer Cook and Casper Gutman are all marvellous to read and beautifully described.  I must say that although the 1941 film does not necessarily cast quite according to Hammett’s descriptions (Humphrey Bogart would need to grow another 3 or so inches to be “quite six feet tall”), they do all bring to life each of the main characters in a fair representation.  So much so that whenever I read Casper Gutman’s dialogue I continually saw and heard Sydney Greenstreet‘s voice and inflection in my head.

Unlike The Thin Man, this one’s one-liners and comebacks were relatively toned down, but Spade is still prickly and quick with his words.  In this instance he is facing down Lieutenant Dundy’s questioning over Archer’s death.

Placidity came back to Spade’s face and voice. He said reprovingly: “You know I can’t tell you that until I’ve talked it over with the client.”
“You’ll tell it to me or you’ll tell it in court,” Dundy said hotly. “This is murder and don’t you forget it.”
“Maybe. And here’s something for you to not forget, sweetheart.  I’ll tell it or not as I damned please.  It’s a long while since I burst out crying because policemen didn’t like me.”

Still the same pig-headed, gritty character as many of Hammett’s others.  But a smooth ladies man with it.  Or is that a heartless ladies man?  You need to decide.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time travel back to the late 1920s courtesy of Dashiell Hammett and I don’t think you will be disappointed if you choose to find one or two of his works either.   The writing is good, the characters are interesting, the stories are well plotted and not obvious from start to finish.  All round easy, fun reads.  I’m rather sad that there are no more on the list.

Happy Reading everyone.

The Glass Key – Dashiell Hammett

Book #655

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily

TGKBy now it is clear that I have become a great fan of Dashiell Hammett’s work, and having a two week holiday in which to indulge myself in his works has only continued to confirm for me that his writing is not only sharp, but varied as well.  The 1931 work, The Glass Key shows this beautifully.  No private detectives to be found here, not many sardonic, funny and sharp one-liners, instead we have Ned Beaumont – gambler and best friend to local political boss (and apparent business man) Paul Madvig.

The story opens with Ned and Paul discussing politics and the Henry family -the father being a Senator whom Paul intends backing for re-election.  Paul clearly also likes the daughter and is intent on marrying her.

A little later Ned finds the body of the senator’s son a couple of blocks down the street from Paul’s club.  The death of the young man, Taylor Henry, begins to pose real problems for Paul Madvig.  His daughter, Opal, was Henry’s girlfriend and she suspects her father of murdering him because he disapproved of the relationship.  The other political faction, represented by Shad O’Rory in the novel, start to make plenty out of the non-investigation of the lad’s death (courtesy of Paul controlling the local District Attorney’s office) and this is escalated by Paul’s boots and all attitude to dealing with O’Rory.

Ned Beaumont works hard to keep the election work on target, Paul out of the electric chair, and to get his money back from a dubious bookie.  Unlike Paul, who seems to have trouble seeing too far ahead, Ned is very much the thinker of the pair.  He sees that Paul is being set up and manipulated due to his infatuation with Janet Henry (Taylor’s sister).  So he works as Paul’s ‘fixer’ and through his interactions with the various characters we build up a picture of life in the underworld and back-door, influence-peddling politics of prohibition America.
I had never come across the term ‘political boss‘ before reading this novel, so for those unfamiliar with their role in late 19th and early 20th century US politics the power and role of Paul may be somewhat confusing – and he may simply be seen as a corrupt businessman with a hand in the speakeasy workings of his city.

I enjoyed reading this story, but for different reasons to the earlier works I’ve reviewed.  Unlike Red Harvest for instance, where the story is told from the point of view of The Continental Op, here the story is told from the outside and we are never given a look at the thoughts or feelings of the characters except as they play out in their actions and words. There was less murder and mayhem, but still plenty of violence and corruption.  At one point Ned is trapped by Shad O’Rory while trying to lay his own trap.  What happens to him as a result is brutal and in keeping with Hammett’s tough, no-nonsense approach to the violent lifestyle of the underworld gangsters of the time.  Realism is king here. Having been beaten senseless and worse, Ned shows his stubbornness in this passage that typifies Hammett’s descriptive style.

Ned Beaumont was tugging at the door-knob.
The apish man said, ‘Now there, Houdini,’ and with all his weight behind the blow drove his right fist into Ned Beaumont’s face.
Ned Beaumont was driven back against the wall.  The back of his head struck the wall first, then his body crashed flat against the wall, and he slid down the wall to the floor.
Rosy-cheeked Rusty, still holding his cards at the table, said gloomily, but without emotion: ‘Jesus, Jeff, you’ll croak him.’
Jeff said: ‘Him?’ He indicated the man at his feet by kicking him not especially hard on the thigh. ‘You can’t croak him.  He’s tough. He’s a tough baby. He likes this.’  He bent down, grasped one of the unconscious man’s lapels in each hand, and dragged him to his knees. ‘Don’t you like it, baby?’ he asked and, holding Ned Beaumont up on his knees with one hand, struck his face with the other fist.

By the time you have worked your way through the initial chapters, identifying characters and who they are to each other you will be hooked enough to keep reading to find out if Paul is Taylor Henry’s murderer, and just what Ned Beaumont is all about.  In the end, I spent several hours straight reading in to the night in order to finish this one up.  It became a case of not wanting to put the book down until I had the solution to the crime, and I must say I enjoyed the entire story.

Well worth the effort and definitely deserving of a place on the list. Highly recommended reading from me.
Happy Reading everyone.