Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Author Birthday [May] : Dashiell Hammett

#AuthorBirthday is a monthly feature, in which I highlight one author each month, mostly the ones I have not yet read. Part of the aim is to get familiar with the author and (hopefully) encourage me to start reading his/her work.

For May, please welcome:


Samuel Dashiell Hammett is an American author, screenwriter, and political activist, who was born on May 27, 1894. He is largely known as the founder of hardboiled detective fiction genre. His father (Richard Thomas Hammett) was an alcoholic, womanizer, and an unsuccessful business man; while his mother - Anne Bond Dashiell (original name in French: de Chiel) suffered from tuberculosis, and held a conviction that 'men were a no-good lot'. So, it's no wonder that little Hammett must leave school in the age of thirteen, to help his father's failing business, and did some menial jobs before he decided to join the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1815, where he served for eight years, and which would change his life forever.

Hammett served in Motor Ambulance Corps during World War I, where he was infected from Spanish flu and tuberculosis. While being hospitalized, he fell in love with nurse Josephine Dolan, whom he married in July 7, 1921. It's a pity, though, that the marriage should fall apart five years later after Hammett was forced to live apart from his wife and their two daughters due to his tuberculosis - an illness, from which, he would never fully recover. Nevertheless, Hammett kept supported Josephine and the children financially.

In 1922 Hammett first published his short detective stories - introducing a private investigator The Continental Op, the first hard-boiled detective in literature - in pulp magazine called Black Mask. One of these short stories, The Glass Keys (1930) was dedicated to Nell Martin, Hammett's lover, who was a short stories and novel author herself. But this relationship didn't last long, for in 1931 he had another romantic relationship with a playwright called Lillian Hellman - a relationship which would last for thirty years.

A few notable novels from Dashiell Hammett are Red Harvest (1929) and The Maltese Falcon (1930), where Sam Spade - one of the most famous crime detectives in literature - made his one and only appearance in a novel (he further appeared in some short stories). The Thin Man (1934) was Hammett's final novel - though he still sporadically wrote some works after that. Hellman later said that Hammett stopped writing since he wanted to do something new. Indeed, he became anti-fascist from 1930 and joined the Communist Party in 1937. He also joined the League of American Writers - whose members were mostly member of Communist Party, or at least supporting the idea ("fellow travellers") - and became its President in 1941.

When World War II broke, Hammett listed again in the US Army. After the war, he returned to politics, and in 1946 became President of Civil Rights Congress (CRC). Later, US government classified CRC as communist front group. Hammett testified at court in 1951 but refused to provide information about CRC trustee, so that he was put into prison for six months, where he worked as toilet cleaner. In his eulogy, Hellman wrote that "he submitted to prison rather than reveal the names of the contributors to the fund because he had come to the conclusion that a man should keep his word."

Alcohol, smoking, and jail life has made Hammett more and continuously ill. In 1950 he lived alone and became very sick. He attempted to write a novel titled "Tulip" but left it unfinished. Couldn't live alone, he finally moved in to stay with Hellman. After all the hard drinking and lavish Hollywood parties, Dashiell Hammett died in January 10, 1961 from a lung cancer, and since he was a veteran of two World Wars, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Since 1991, the International Association of Crime Writers, North American Branch (IACW/NA) has been awarding the Hammett Prize to Canadian or US citizen for a book in English in the field of crime writing every year. Dashiell Hammett's hardboiled detective stories continue to inspire many writers until today (and for many years to come, I believe).

Saturday, May 23, 2020

[Mini Reviews] Big 4, Blue Train, 7 Dials, and The Murder at the Vicarage

It is one long sentence for a title, and this post is indeed consisting of (very) late reviews of four Agatha Christie's I've read last years (about 6-7 months ago). All of the four were not my favorites (maybe THAT's why I kept putting off writing the reviews). Well, let's have it done in this one post!

The Big Four

This one is perhaps my least favorite from Poirot-Hastings stories. It's also one of my least favorite theme of Christie's: the secret-society-wants-to-dominate-the-world. Shortly, it's about an international crime cartel of four prominent people in the world: The Big Four.
1. Li Chang Yen - Chinese political mastermind (the brain)
2. Abe Ryland - American wealthiest man (the money)
3. Madame Olivier - French genius scientist (the technology)
4. An elusive man who did all the dirty jobs called The Destroyer.

Hastings arrived in England from Argentine (following his marriage) to visit his dear friend, Hercule Poirot. An injured Sectet Service man forced his entrance to Poirot's flat, and told them the most fantastic story about a mysterious but dangerous society of Big Four. Poirot and Hastings then travelled across continents, picking warm bodies of No. 4's victims each time, and even eluded some deadly danger themselves, to unfold little by little the mysterious cartel, and finally destroyed it. As usual, the story is full of (too many) actions, red herrings, disguises, that if you don't read this book in one sitting, or at least in one or two days, you'd get lost of what's going on. I've even lost count of how many murders there are. And there is no mystery, because you know from the beginning that it has got to do the the Big Four.

Nevertheless, it's not all bad. I remembered at least two interesting things in this book.
First, the first appearance of Countess Vera Rossakoff, who *cough*... will have not a small influence over Poirot further on next stories.

Second, the sweet affectionate friendship between Hastings and Poirot. It is when one is on deadly peril, that one can judge who's one's true and loyal friend. Hastings is never brilliant, but he is a loyal friend.

Rating: 3/5

The Mystery of the Blue Train

The first of many novels with train setting from Dame Agatha Christie. Hercule Poirot presided again as the detective, as he was traveling by the Blue Train, where Ruth Kettering, the daughter of the richest man in America, was killed. She was bringing with her a famous ruby called "Heart of Fire", which her daddy has purchased in a shady deal, to give her as gift.

Of course the diamond was missing, and you could not but suspect that the diamond has to be the main motive. But of whom? This is where Christie geniusly weaved a second complication: Ruth's unhappy marriage with a scoundrel Derek Kettering, and her love affair with Comte de la Roche. And guess what: both men are broke! So, it's between pure jewel robbery or love triangle murder.

While Hastings are away in Argentine, having a reunion with his lovely wife after his dangerous adventure in The Big Four, Poirot found an accomplice in Katherine Grey, an ex-companion of a wealthy widow, who inherited money, and travelled on the same Blue Train, having been (supposedly) the last person who talked to Ruth before she was strangled. She is an intelligent, reserved, independent girl; and it was sweet of Christie in giving her a slight love story - no doubt to add more spice and complication too!

Not a very remarkable story, one that you might easily forget after a while, but, still, as with most of Christie's, it's quite engaging and entertaining.

Rating: 3,5/5

The Seven Dials Mystery

When Superintendent Battle is teaming up again with Lady Eileen "Bundle" Brent, you know that there'd be some cheerful notes accompanying a (or some) murder. This will be a greatly entertaining and fast-paced story! And I'm not wrong. Actually, I rather liked this slightly better than The Secret of Chimneys (where Superintendent Battle and Bundle first made appearances). At least, here, its cheerful note supersided my dislike of international conspiracy theme.

The Cootes is the current tenant of The Chimneys (house of Lord Caterham and his daughter Bundle), and they invite a gang of young people to stay and cheer them up: Gerry Wade, Jimmy Thesiger, Ronny Deveraux, and Bill Eversleigh (who we already know from The Secret of Chimneys). Gerry is a late waker, so his friends set a prank. They placed eight alarm clock besides Gerry's bed, and set the alarm to ring loudly one after another next morning to wake him up. The clocks rang, waking everyone up, but not Gerry. Not because he's a severe oversleeping person, but because he's dead!

I always remark this story as a "prank gone wrong". Even after the murder, there's a youthful atmosphere enveloped the whole story as Bundle, Jimmy, Bill, and the gang takes over the adventure, while Superintendent Battle investigating the case. It consists of as many red herrings and disguise as you can imagine, and.... a "naughty" plot twist from Christie in the end.

I was a bit surprised that many people dislike this book, lamenting that Christie "took a different line from her usual approach". I think, on the contrary, it's the different note that lent this story its attraction - at least that's how it works for me. It's cheerful, funny, light, fast-paced, entertaining piece!

Rating: 4/5

The Murder at the Vicarage

After international espionage, train traveling, and mysterious secret society, now Christie is back on track to the village - St. Mary Mead. Yes, this is the first appearance of Christie's second detective: Miss Jane Marple, a quiet, witty, very intelligent spinster, who - I read many times - was Christie's own favorite. Mine is still Poirot; I always find Marple's a bit boring. :)

Colonel Protheroe is the wealthy church warden - an unsympathetic man with unbearable personality. Disliked by most if the villagers, but most of all, by his family: Anne Protheroe (his young second wife), and Lettice Protheroe (teenage daughter from first marriage). The later, at least, had been heard publicly wishing for his father to die. The same wish had even heard of from the Vicar: Leonard Clement, who is also the narrator of this story. Moreover, Anne Protheroe, the unhappy wife, is having an affair with Lawrence Redding - an artist who uses a room within the vicarage building as his study. We have here at least four close suspects, not mentioning others who hated the Colonel.

Typical problem for the police in a village murder case is lack of accessibility. And so, an attentive spinster who spends most of her time gardening such as Miss Marple is a valuable asset for them.

This story is the kind I should have liked, but I don't know, I found it a bit flat, and certainly easy to forget. I even forgot the murderer identity while writing this review, and must consult Wikipedia to fresh my memory.

Rating: 3,5/5

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Jazz Age June: A Reading Event

2020 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Great Gatsby, which, in Literature, is the epitome of The Jazz Age or the Roaring Twenties. Early this year Laurie and I have discussed about the possibility of hosting a reading event, but then the pandemic came, and I, for one, have been struggling with reading and blogging. Nevertheless, we thought it would be an exciting distraction to our present condition, and so we decided to - borrowing Cole Porter's song - Let's Do It!

01-30 June 2020

It's very simple; just READ any book published between 1920 to 1929.

Blog your reading, add link to your post in Laurie's blog, and share it in social media with hashtag #JazzAgeJune.

You can also accompany your reading by discussing 1920s musics, movies, arts, fashion, or just anything related to the Jazz Age.

Easy and fun, right?

Don't know where to start? Just check on Laurie's post for more reading ideas. 

I will be reading Fitzgerald's Flappers and Philosiphers, and maybe.. This Side of Paradise.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Zola's Book Covers - Old vs New

One activity I usually do during Zoladdiction is checking any new Zola books which is being or going to be published. This year in particular, I've been waiting for the new translation by Oxford World Classics of Doctor Pascal - the only one left from the Rougon-Macquart series which OWC hasn't been published.

I wasn't waiting in vain; during Zoladdiction, Alok - one of the Zoladdicts (=Zola's enthusiasts) I follow on Twitter (@alokranj), shared OWC's upcoming translation of Doctor Pascal, yay finally! Of course, I immediately opened Book Depository, and pre-ordered it. Instead of immediately closing the website after transaction, however, I went on taking a peek at Nana's new edition, which I learned also from Alok (I learn many things on literature from him - he's worth a follow!) Then I found out that, apparently, besides Nana, OWC has also published (or going to publish) several other new editions of Zola's with NEW COVERS! And so, I'm sharing my enthusiasm with you today.

What I always love about OWC's edition of Zola's compared to other publishers, is, first, the translators (Brian Nelson is by far my favorite). Come to second, is the Impressionist paintings they use as covers (I also love their neat white ribbon for the title). Why it make a difference, while there are many paintings used for covers in the literary world? It's because of Zola's close relationship with Impressionism and its painters. If you look at his writing style, there's a thick quality of painting in it. The painting-covers has become an inseparable part of the novel itself - not merely a beautiful image to decorate a book. Therefore, you can imagine my astonishment when looking into the new covers of these four latest editions of L'Assommoir, Pot-Luck (Pot Bouille), The Masterpiece, and Thérèse Raquin - which use modern arts instead of Impressionist paintings! 

Just look at these comparisons, and tell me - the new covers: yay or nay?

While there's new freshness from the red substances portrayed in these covers, they lost the interpretation of the novels. It looks pretty for decoration - and perhaps you would want to grab the book from a bookstore's shelf on impulse, especially if you love red color - but it doesn't have any meanings, and certainly doesn't represent the book's contents at all! 

I don't know why OWC - which I have hitherto praised for their cover choices - decided this kind of change. Maybe they think the new covers represent vigorous life - which is indeed the essence of Zola's concept - but still, there are a lot of Impressionist paintings out there they could have picked for the new editions! They did that with Nana, why not all these four (and other titles in the future)?

What do think? Which version do you prefer? And why?

Thursday, May 7, 2020

#MobyDick2ndRead: Ch. 26-31: Arthurian, Shakespearean, Gatsby

Chapter 26: Knights and Squires

Starbuck, the first mate
= Courageous, experienced, intuitive, wise.

= Very brave if needed, and only taking risk after careful calculation.

= Found an interesting analysis on this blog that Starbuck actually represents two figures: Sir Lancelot from the Arthurian legend and Jesus Christ. I think the Christ line is a bit exaggerated, so I'd follow the Arthurian legend, which makes more sense, considering this chapter title.

= I was pondering a lot through the last two paragraphs, and this article enlightened me on some subjects. First: the "valor-ruined man", which means a man with too much courage, who's gone into something foolish.

= This article also mentions the theme of Transcendentalism which is presented in the last paragraph, in Ishmael's soliloquy to "the Spirit of Equality" (=God). So, God here is considered as the center of everything which revolves around Him, and everything is equal to Him. Does this make sense to you? Does transcendentalism place God as our equal? The article also relates this with the Round Table of the Arthurian legend, where everyone round the table is equal. I vaguely understand that in transcendentalism men are equal and independent, and that nature is sacred. But I've thought, by "transcendent", it means that they acknowledge God as their superior, but they just ignore religion practices - or am I just confuse it with Agnostic? Oh.. you got to help me here! :))

Favorite quotes:

"I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of a whale."

"The most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward."

"This august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture."

These three quotes well explained Starbuck character, which I noticed in someone I know - they sometimes seem indecisive in critical moments, but in fact, they are analyzing, weighing facts, past experiences, risks, and results. They might not shining as great men because they don't always rush to fight - at times they'd even withdraw from it - it'a just that they don't want to waste time and energy for only small or moderate results. No, it's not cowardice, I personally call that WISE!

What have Bunyan, Cervantes, and Andrew Jackson got to do with this chapter? Do they represent the "kingly commons" or the trancendentalists?

Chapter 27: Knights and Squires

Stubb, the second mate:
= Careless, take everything easy - even life, which to him is valueless. And he smokes! I can never trust heavy smokers... I believe his indifference (and his pipe.. ) is just his way to counter real fear.

Flask, the third mate:
= Pugnacious and ignorant. He's just what Starbuck refers to with "more dangerous comrade than a coward".

I have made this structure on my first read, so that I don't have to return to this chapter each time I forget who's who.

Melville ended this chapter by pointing out (again) that whaling is a dangerous "life-and-death" occupation, and he alluded to the dark foreshadowing faith of Black Little Pip.

Chapter 28: Ahab

Ahab is the King Arthur of the Pequod.
=Previously enigmatic, now, as Ishmael sees him for the first time, he is "solid, firm, fixed, erect, fearless". 

=He has a whitish mark on his face, which added to the formidable appearance of Ahab. 

=Ishmael's description of his ivory leg, made of sperm whale's jaw bone, and his erect way of standing on deck at night, nailed his charismatic characteristic forever in literature:

"Upon each side of the Pequod's quarter-deck, and pretty close to the mizen shrouds, there was an auger hole, bored about half an inch or so, into the plank. His bone leg steadied on that hole; one arm elevated, and holding by a shroud."

You know, Ahab's erect posture with fixed sight to the darkness in this image reminded me of Jay Gatsby's stretching hand towards the green light. I just realized that Moby Dick is Gatsby's Daisy to Ahab!

Chapter 29: Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb

Here's one of many Shakesperean theme Melville used for Moby Dick. You can't but imagine chapter 29 and 30 in a staged drama.

=Ahab might appear to be strong and sturdy in posture, but fragile and very unstable mentally.

=His considerate decision in not walking through the plank at night to not waking the crews is but a slight glimpse of his original personality, which, but of a passionate revenge, would make him a great captain.

= Stubb is the first to (though still vaguely) realize the deplorable state of Ahab's mental condition - the early stage of manic madness.

"I don't well know whether to go back and strike him, or - what's that? - down here on my knees and pray for him?"

Chapter 30: The Pipe

Ahab's soliloquy is only highlighted his trouble mind, as Stubb has witnessed in the previous chapter.

"The fire hissed in the waves; the same instant the ship shot by the bubble the sinking pipe made" - was like a foreboding sign of what Ahab's mental instability would do towards Pequod.

Chapter 31: Queen Mab

=Another Shakesperean theme - Queen Mab is the queen of the fairies in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. "She is referred to as the fairies' midwife, who delivers sleeping men of their innermost wishes in the form of dreams." (Britannica). "Queen Mab and her carriage do not merely symbolize the dreams of sleepers, they also symbolize the power of waking fantasies, daydreams, and desires." (Sparknotes)

=Though the one who is dreaming here is Stubb, the allusion of Queen Mab fits with Ahab's desires (and Jay Gatsby, don't you think?)

=About Ahab's kick, I think Stubb is wrong. A kick is a kick, be it from a living leg or an ivory one. It's the intention that counts. It's just Stubb's denial reasoning. I think he's terrified of Ahab, but, just as in Ishmael's denial despite of Elijah's "prophecy", Stubb, unconsciously, tried to shut off his conscience that keeps pointing to the dark evil surrounding his boss.

And so, here I must end. Ere long, we'll get to the one aspect I didn't enjoy from my first read: the lectures! But, I'll brace myself... :)

Monday, May 4, 2020

Resuming My Journey Aboard Pequod, #MobyDick2ndRead Ch. 23-25

Last year I joined Brona in a Moby Dick readalong, in which I excitedly participated for several weeks, before deciding to sign off; with a vague plan to resume some day when I have more flexible schedule. And, guess what, I think NOW is the time! The pandemic has made me restless and uncertain; and I need some soothing, slow-paced books to read. Willa Cather's Song of the Lark is my main choice, and Moby Dick will be the energetic Thea Kronborg's sidekick. How's that, huh?

So, here I am, onboard Pequod once again. This time without pressure, without timeline, it'll surely be fun! I'm picking up right after I've left it last year at chapter 22. Let's go, matey!

Chapter 23: The Lee Shore

=Second and last appearance of Bulkington, supposedly the pilot of Pequod. (Why don't we hear more about him? Was it to emphasize the lack of recognition of whale men?)

=Is it a credit for untold stories of many great shipment or whalemen?

=Or praise for wide-minded people who prefer challenges of exploring the unknown rather than staying in comfort zone?

=Or maybe it's an opening of Melville's advocate of the whaling occupation? I think all of those, and I'm glad of having returned on this stage!

Chapter 24: The Advocate

=Now the real advocacy! Following previous chapter, Melville lamented the misconception of whaling and whale men. Comparing it with war, he emphasized the irony of honoring our men of war - great generals and all, who in reality is the same 'butchers' - much higher than whale men.

= Breaking down the advantages of whaling:
* Pioneer of discovering (and making way to) the remote parts of the earth (way before the much praised James Cook).

* Help bringing the liberation of Spanish colonies.

* Help clearing the way of merchants and missionaries.

* Help opening Japan after its "Sakoku" isolationist foreign policy, which have restricted relation and trade with other countries for 220 years under the reign of the Shoguns. Though my little research revealed that it was actually done by a diplomatic military ship called The Black Ship, commanded by a Matthew Perry (did FRIENDS's Chandler popped in your head at this name? LOL). I don't know. Maybe the whale men had done something important before Perry landed there, but gone unrecorded in history; who knows?

=Proofs of the honorable Whale:
*Job has written it in the Bible.

*Edmund Burke (member of British House of Commons) has speeched praises over it.

*Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, Roman Senator, has brought its bones in his victory prossession to Rome.

*Constellation Cetus was drawn from its figure.

Have ye been convinced now? No? Wait... Melville still has more up his sleeve...

Chapter 25: Postscript

Just wondering, did Melville forget to mention this on previous chapter, or is it just to emphasize its significance? :)

=Whale provides its sperm oil for the English to anoint their kings and queens on coronation. Melville put much effort to mock this process, though he must have perfectly known that the tradition was derived from the Bible - anointing oil is a symbol of sanctifying or blessing a person. He did know this, right? Again, he took this opportunity to ridicule the Church - and I suspect won't be his last.

I took the same approach of this second read of Moby Dick as last year's readalong, which is annotating-reading-listening-taking notes. I must thank Brona again for the invaluable sources she has introduced me to.

See ye in my next posts! This is beginning to be fun.. :)

Friday, May 1, 2020

Zoladdiction 2020 Wrap Up

I would never have imagined that one of Zoladdictions I host every year would be held during a pandemic. 2020 would become one of our memorable moments in life, but, maybe, more in painful ways. No, I don't think Zoladdiction 2020 was really successful, but nonetheless, we - or some of us - have at least finished one more Zola's.

For my part, I struggled a bit with The Kill, and I have to admit that Zola's books are not the best you'd enjoy during these gloomy days. Do you agree? The Kill has never been my favorite, and this second read didn't much improve either, but I think I managed to understand few things more than before.

What about you?
Have you finished a book or two?
Did you enjoy it?

And now Zoladdiction must end, which, I must admit, I'm not really sad.. :P

Thank you to all participants for reading Zola with me, and sorry for my not being a better host this time. Next year will be better! (^_^) Meanwhile, stay healthy, guys!

Though Zoladdiction 2020 has ended, you can still leave your review link in the comment section or tag me on Twitter or IG.