“The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton” by Russell H. Greenan

If you’re looking for an offbeat comedy, try  Russell H. Greenan’s  genre-crossing novel, The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton.  I’d call it a cult classic, except I’d never heard of it before this summer. Published in 1973 and recently reissued by Dover, it’s not quite horror, not quite a mystery.  Think Shirley Jackson crossed with James Thurber.  

I was spellbound by the quirky humor.  The middle-aged narrator, Algernon Pendleton, lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, which he describes as “an overstuffed town (50,000 souls) which is enclosed on three sides by the city of Boston.” His great-grandfather A. Edward Pendleton was an eminent Egyptologist who  looted treasures from the Pharaohs’ tombs–and not everything ended up in museums.  Al lives alone now in Great-grampy’s house, surrounded by antiques and invaluable Egyptian artifacts.

When Al needs money, he nips over to Boston to sell one of the treasures.  The Turkish antique dealer Mahir Suleyman wants the Egyptian funerary statuette, but quibbles about documentation and fakes:  where is the tag?  Al gets a good price after he says he’ll try another dealer.  

When Al gets home, Eulalia, his “friend,” nags him about money.  Al will lose the house if he doesn’t find a lot of cash soon. She advises him to “throttle” 89-year-old Aunt Beaty, who owns a few miles of the Maine shoreline.  And she says he’s “a child” not to understand the efficacy of this act.

Does Eulalia seem insane?  Turns out she is a talking Worcester porcelain pitcher.  Yes, Al is completely loco.  After suffering a brain concussion as a lieutenant in the Navy during World War II, he developed the “gift” of understanding the language of inanimate objects.   The philodendrons in the yard scold him, and that gets on his nerves…

Al is genial, but he’s not what you’d call trustworthy.  His old college friend, Norbie Hess, arrives with a suitcase full of money and a fatal heart condition. Eulalia thinks a mercy killing would be a good idea. And then there’s Madge, “a lady archaeologist” who arrives one day wanting to read all of Great-grampy’s papers and snoop around the house.  Al is very attracted to her, but Madge defends herself ably from his advances.

Like Shirley Jackson, Greenan has a gift for creating horrific characters in outlandish situations.  Greenan’s narrator Al isn’t quite as eerie as Cassandra in Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but let us just say they have one or two things in common.

Greenan owned an antique shop in Boston before he became a full time writer.  And turns out The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton was adapted as a movie in 1997.  He is apparently best known for his first novel, It Happened in Boston?, reissued by Modern Library in 2003.   Let’s hope I can find it at the library.

Reading in the Heat: Ten Books with Exotic Settings

When it’s 90 before noon you might get claustrophobic in the air-conditioned house.

But if you get up early enough, you can sit outdoors, or at least on the porch, with a good book and a glass of iced tea.   You’ll feel like a character in a hot Southern novel, perhaps by Eudora Welty or William Faulkner (both were from Mississippi).

Personally, I like books with exotic settings when it gets this hot.  Here’s a List of Ten Favorites–and you might want to include Welty and Faulkner.

1.  Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.  In this exotic tetralogy, Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, the prose is moody and lush.   Over the course of the four books, Durrell’s narrator, Darley, reiterates a series of events in the lives of his lover Justine and a group of friends in Alexandria, Egypt.  Other characters, particularly Balthazar and Clea (Mountolive is the hero of the prequel), contribute their viewpoints, so that a clearer picture is revealed.Published from 1957 to 1960, these books are elegant but occasionally too flowery.   Still, they are classics and I love them!

2.  W. Somerset Maugham is one of my favorite middlebrow writers.  If you want to lose yourself in perfectly-wrought fiction, try his Collected Stories (Everyman’s Library).  I spent a week completely immersed in these addictive, tightly-plotted exotic stories, but since it’s been a while, let me quote the jacket copy: “In the adventures of his alter ego Ashenden, a writer who (like Maugham himself) turned secret agent in World War I, as well as in stories set in such far-flung locales as South Pacific islands and colonial outposts in Southeast Asia, Maugham brings his characters vividly to life, and their humanity is more convincing for the author’s merciless exposure of their flaws and failures.”

3.  Fans of Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War will enjoy her tightly-plotted novel The Rain Forestpublished in 1974, set on an island in the Indian Ocean. If you are a fan of Graham Greene or W. Somerset Maugham, you will not be able to put it down.  This hypnotic story of an expatriate couple living on a jasmine-scented island ruled by the British is a trenchant examination of colonialism and culture clash.  You can read the rest of my blog post here.

4.  Do you crave light novels in the heat?  I highly recommend, both to women and men,  This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart.  Set in Corfu, this Gothic is a homage to The Tempest.  The narrator, Lucy,  an unemployed actress, joins her sister Phyllida on vacation in a luxurious villa in Corfu.  It’s gorgeous, but strange things are going on:  the maid’s son drowns on a boat trip with an English photographer;  someone shoots at a dolphin while Lucy is swimming near it in the sea; a moody composer, Max, who lives in a villa up the hill, is secretive and surly; and Max’s father, a retired actor who  believes Corfu is the setting of The Tempest, gallantly tries to hide a drinking problem.  And, believe me, there is much quoting of Shakespeare, even when crimes are investigated.

5.   The German writer Kurt Tucholsky’s novel, Castle Gripsholm (NYRB), translated by Michael Hoffman, is the charming story of a summer vacation in Sweden. Published in 1931, it begins with a series of short letters between the author and an editor who asks him to write a short love story.  Tucholsky says he would prefer to write “a little summer story.” And so the little summer story begins. You’ll enjoy the travels of a delightfully bohemian writer and his smart secretary girlfriend.  You can read the rest of my post here.

6.  Booker Prize nominee Alice Thomas Ellis’s trilogy,  THE SUMMER HOUSE, is beautifully-written and exotic.  In these very short  novels, the same events are observed by three different women (who form a kind of unholy female trinity).  In The Clothes in the Wardrobe, we meet the bride, Margaret, a passive young woman who had a love affair in Egypt with a young man who committed a murder. And now she is engaged to a middle-aged man she doesn’t love.  In The Skeleton in the Cupboard, her mother Mrs. Monroe has doubts about the imminent wedding as Margaret’s lack of enthusiasm for her son becomes apparent.  And in The Fly in the Ointment, Lili, the Egyptian femme fatale at the center of the action, is admired, loved, and sometimes feared.  Lili, who identifies with Lilith, the mythic first wife of Adam in the Bible, is determined to help Margaret (and herself) by doing whatever it takes.

7.  Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune is, to a large extent, about the politics of water. Water is the most precious commodity on the planet, though the ruling class are never dehydrated and live in luxury.  The native Fremen in the desert must wear “stillsuits” that recycle every drop of sweat and urine while they travel or work in the spice mines.  When someone dies, the water is taken from the body to be reused, because 70% of the body is water.  Plastic dew collectors save every drop of condensation for growing plants. Dangerous sand and dust storms blow up to 700 kilometers an hour and “can eat flesh off bones and etch the bones to sliver.”  There are also giant worms.  But the planetologist, who knows exactly how much water is needed to make the planet green over the next few hundred years, teaches the people how to change.

8.  Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa.  Is Dinesen’s memoir Out of Africa, published in 1937, still appreciated, or is it dismissed as racist nowadays because she sometimes calls Africans “natives”?  Dinesen moved in 1912 to Kenya to run a coffee plantation with her syphilitic husband, and, after seeking medical treatment in Denmark for syphilis herself, returned.  After he left her in 1921,  she ran the plantation alone until 1931.  Her experiences are touching and vividly detailed: she gives medical treatment to the Africans, adopts an antelope, Lulu, and saves the life of Kamante, a young boy who becomes her chef and medical assistant.   She knows all about the cultures of the Kikuyu and the Masai, and tells lovely stories.  One of the most gorgeous memoirs of the 20th century.

9. Brad Leithauser’s new novel, The Promise of Elsewhere, is a brilliant academic satire about a professor on vacation.  Louie, the protagonist,  a professor of art history at Ann Arbor College (AAC), is distinctly unhappy with his job.  And his wife Florence, a third-grade teacher, has left him:  she and her lover were arrested for  indecent behavior, and are now, ironically, living in the Virgin Islands.  Tired of being the subject of gossip, Louie decides to spend the summer  traveling in Europe and Asia to look at his favorite architecture.   He abandons his itinerary, and the resulting madcap trip through Rome, the UK, Iceland, and Greenland made me laugh out loud.

10.  Grant Ginder’s new novel Honestly, We Meant Well is  an excellent literary beach read about a family vacation in Greece. Sue Ellen, a classicist, isn’t entirely happy that her family is accompanying her to Greece.  She’s annoyed with her philandering husband and grieving  the death of Christos, a former lover who ran the inn where they’re staying.  Her husband, Dean a writer and creative writing professor, is worried about his next novel and, unbeknownst to her, is cheating on her again.   Their  son Will, is in agony over a breakup with his boyfriend and has also plagiarized a short story. Then there’s  Eleni,  Christos’ daughter, about to sell the inn.  The novel is also a  kind of guide to Greece.  Delphi, Athens, Aegina…  Some serious issues, but overall great fun.


Eclectic Reading & the Need for a Good Costume Drama

I savored every minute in June, but July is rushing by.  I need to sit tranquilly in the garden like Elizabeth in Elizabeth and Her German Garden… except I didn’t plant a garden this year.   

Well, at least I’ve been reading a lot.

Here’s what I’ve been reading.

Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon.  This beautifully-written historical novel (kudos to both Ulitskaya and the translator Polly Gannon) covers more than a century in Russia and interweaves two timelines.  Ulitskaya alternates the story of Nora, a theater set designer in the late 20th century who is  the mother of a son with Aspergers; and the letters and diaries of her Jewish grandfather Jacob and her grandmother  Marusya, a dancer who studied  with one of Isadora Duncan’s acolytes.

Censorship is endemic in the theater.  Nora and her lover, Tengiz, a famous director, are too creative for their political time.  They stage a radical production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters which is shut down after one performance.  Tengiz is in and out of Nora’s life, but he has a huge influence on her decidedly odd son Yurik, who becomes obsessed with the Beatles after Tengiz gives him old records.

As the years go by, Nora works in the theater but also must care for her parents on their deathbeds.  And she is very anxious about her son Yurik, whom she sends him to America to live with his father to save him from military service.

I find Nora’s story more interesting than that of her grandparents–let’s hear it for traditional narratives!  Jacob’s letters and diary entries sometimes drag, but they capture the history of the first half of the twentieth century  This is more than a family story, of course:  it is also an ambitious story of Russia. And I am  impressed with the graceful style.  Translator Polly Gannon served Ulitskaya well!

If you like Janet Fitch’s wonderful historical novel set in Russia, The Revolution of Marina M., you will probably enjoy Jacob’s Ladder.

Ulitskaya  has won numerous awards and was a Booker International Prize  nominee in 2009.

Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively’s Spiderweb, an elegant but dark novel. Sixty-five-year old Stella Bentwood retires to a charming cottage in Somerset, England.  But it’s not easy for an anthropologist to give up her trade and connect with people.  She buys a dog, and occasionally sees two old friends, who are more attached to her than she is to them.  But even when she thinks she’s settled she isn’t because–two words– the neighbors. As always, Lively’s writing is superb, but this is one of her most unsettling books.

Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair.  In this  classic mystery,  a successful lawyer, Robert Blair of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet, wonders, Is this all to life?   His secretary Miss Tuff brings him tea on a lacquer tray with a white tablecloth at 3:50 every day.  He returns home every day at the same time.  But that afternoon Marion Sharpe, whom he knows only by sight, telephones him and begs him to come to the house because an inspector from Scotland Yard is there.  He has accused Marion and her mother of kidnapping a teenage girl, Betty Kane, and holding her hostage for three weeks in their attic.

Although the girl’s story is credible—she uncannily describes the layout of the house—the Sharpes say they’ve never seen her, and Robert investigates. This case is based on the eighteenth-century case of Elizabeth CannIng, according to James Sandoe in the introduction.  

I’m “synth-identified” npw!

And now on a different subject:  Please recommend a costume drama!  After being spellbound by three seasons of the BBC science fiction series, Humans, I became almost “synth-identified”(synths are human-looking robots who are more more humane than most humans).  Now I need something calming, even a little boring, preferably a costume drama.  Any recommendations?

A Carolyn See Revival: Rereading “Making History”

Does anyone read Carolyn See ?  She is one of my favorite writers.

See (1934-2016) was a novelist, a book critic for The Washington Post, and a professor at UCLA. A few years ago I reread her masterpiece, Golden Days. In this effervescent genre-bending novel, an unconventional family in L.A. in the 1980s lives as joyously as they can in the shadow of the imminent dropping of a nuclear bomb.

See’s other novels are firmly rooted in realism.  A carpe diem attitude colors all her work:  life is fragile, but people find their joy where they can. I recently reread her novel Making History,  and though it did not affect me as strongly as it did on a first reading, I was fascinated by the characters.  In this impossible-to-classify novel,  See portrays a “blended” family  who survive one tragedy only to unravel again.  She also explores the lives of a parallel family struck by tragedy.  Then there is Thea, a woman who can see the future (not a gift in the age of AIDS), and Donny, who has lost jobs and family until Thea provides him with alternate pasts.  And, because See does not write only about the personal, she also writes about the global economy.

See’s gorgeous writing always knocks me out.  The novel begins with the observations of a benign ghost, Robin.  

No one ever said I was very bright.  But I know some stories.  I’ve got a line like every other guy.  I hang out at the beach and I wait. That’s the story on me, that’s what I’m supposed to do.  I know something now—the dead watch us with a terrible caring.  That’s not much to build a life on, but some friends of mine would argue, what’s a life?

Robin doesn’t know he’s dead–yet!  And we don’t know he’s a ghost.  He finally learns this from a fortuneteller.

See traces the effect of a car accident on the survivors and their families and friends. Seventeen-year-old Robin, the driver who becomes a ghost,  dies in a car accident: he is making a right turn when a truck plows into him.  When Wynn learns her daughter Whitney was in the car and is in the hospital, she is shocked and terrified.  And it doesn’t help that Jerry, her husband and Whitney’s stepfather, is on his way to Japan on a business trip.  He travels so much that Wynn jokes he hasn’t seen the kids since the ‘70s.

Wynn is appalled to see that Whitney has only has one tooth left, her blond hair is caked with blood, and her arm and shoulder are broken.  Wynn longs to be close again to  Whitney,  and they do become closer because of the tragedy.  And you have to love Whitney, who sticks her teeth back in her gums while her mother is out of the room, and though they are crooked, it will save them thousands in dentistry.

The whole family seems golden:  they live in the Palisades, and are rich and beautiful.  But “the real family,” as Whitney once overheard Jerry describe Wynn and his two small biological children, Josh and Tina, live in the house, while stepdaughter Whitney lives in the cupola above the garage.  But Jerry seems unhealthily obsessed with Whitney—and it is uncomfortable and even a bit creepy, but See treats this as a normal psychological phenomenon—and thank God he doesn’t overstep boundaries.  Most of his time is spent on business deals—he and his partners don’t sell things so much as ideas, and they are trying to find investors in a Paradisiacal tourist destination they hope to develop in New Guinea. I wasn’t as interested in Jerry’s business deals as I was the first time around. Perhaps I have actually absorbed some of the economic principles!

  Am I being too complicated?  Too much about the plot?  It is an uneven novel, but I love it.   Let me just say there is much joy in Whitney’s recovery, and there are many, many wonderful characters.  Whitney’s witty best friend Tracie and Tracie’s mother Kathy, who is going crazy because of a new baby, spend much time with Whitney and Wynn during Whitney’s recovery.  Wynn and Kathy have parallel lives:  both married unhappily in the ’70s, and then left with their daughters and finally married “up” into comfortable happiness.

But nothing stays the same.  And there ARE more accidents.

See reminds us that affluence is part of happiness–we don’t like to think about money, do we?–though family is also key.  But everything can changee in a minute.  

WARNING:  I cried buckets.  

The Cost of Banishment:  Cicero, Ovid, and Aeneas in Exile

David Bamber as Cicero in the TV series “Rome.”

Ancient Rome was violent and decadent.  If you’ve binge-watched the TV series Rome or perused Mary Beard’s best-selling history SPQR, you know that Rome seethed with wars, civil wars, conspiracies, gang warfare, assassinations, exile, poisonings, insanity, promiscuity, lead poisoning, and capricious emperors.

War veterans in ancient Rome obviously suffered PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but the psychological cost of exile is also treated in Roman history and literature.  In Virgil’s Aeneid, the traumatized hero-warrior Aeneas survives the fall of Troy but then must reluctantly lead the survivors into exile—because the gods force him to.  

And Ovid, the frivolous, brilliant poet, was capriciously exiled by the emperor Augustus in 8 A.D. for carmen et error (a poem and an error).  In letters written in the form of poetry, Tristia (Sad Things) and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea), the urbane Ovid begs his friends to intercede on his behalf, because he does not thrive among barbarians in Tomis on the cold shores of the Black Sea.  But he died in exile in 17 A.D.

And then there’s Cicero, the most eloquent lawyer and orator in Rome, who was elected consul (the highest office) in 63 B.C. He boasted of his achievements, especially of having crushed the revolutionary conspiracies of Catiline.  But in 58 B.C., he went into exile in Greece, mainly because of the political machinations of his enemy Clodius (which also benefited Julius Caesar).

Cicero’s letters home are pathetic.  He wonders:  has the government stripped his wife Terentia of their land and property?  Are the children all right?

O  desperate me!  O ruined me!   What now?  Should I ask you to come here,  a sick woman, exhausted in body and mind?  Should I not ask?  Should I be without you?  I think I should deal with it thus:  if there is hope of my return, let me know and help manage the affair; but if, as I fear, it has not been settled, come to me any way you can.  And know this:  if I have you, I will not seem entirely lost.  But what will become of Tulliola [their married daughter]? You must see to it:  I have no counsel for you.  But however the matter turns out, my unhappy little one’s  reputation and marriage must be saved.  What else? What should my son Cicero [age 6] do?  May he always be in my embrace and protection.  I cannot write more now.  My sorrow prevents it.

Near the end of the letter, he courageously writes,

We have lived; we have flourished.  Not our vice but our virtue has ruined us.  There is no sin, unless it is that I did not lose my life along with honors. 

Cicero returned from exile to his beloved, deadly dangerous Rome in 57 B.C.   He continued to write and deal with other powerful men until he was put to death in 43 B.C.

The translations of Cicero are my own.

How Many Pages in an E-book? or How to Ruin Your Reading Schedule

” Woman with Parasol” 1921 Henri Matisse

I often read books “from alternative timelines,” according to my cousin the cataloguer.  This whimsical category includes out-of-print books “nobody reads,” she says disapprovingly, by the likes of Pamela Hansford Johnson, Harriette Arnow, Edna Ferber, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Margaret Oliphant.  Public libraries do not generate business with such books, so one looks for them at used bookstores or university libraries.  

I will defend my reading of such books to the death, but I am out of the loop of modern culture.  And so I resolved to read  three new books this summer.  They’re remarkably easy reads (I’ve read four), so I plan to keep going.

Mind you, my attitude toward new books is:  don’t let them deflect you from your natural reading course. I can’t become one of those bloggers who devote themselves to schilling new books. And  I don’t want to  read the books everyone promotes, so I’m trying to choose carefully.   Much to my surprise, one of them has turned out to be the flavor of the month. “If ever a book didn’t need my review…” I wryly thought after I saw Emily Nussbaum on CBS This Morning.

I planned July as an easy month.  I decided this weekend to read a new Russian novel.  There are, however,  no page numbers in the e-book, and I  bizarrely had read only a tiny percentage of the pages in an hour.  And so I checked online:  it is over 500 pages.  That’s too much for a holiday weekend.

So much for schedules! And that’s why I seldom write anything on a calendar.

Happy Fourth of July! Books with an Independence Day Theme

Happy Fourth of July!  We’re doing minimal prep for a back-yard picnic:  Boca burgers, potato salad, and green bean salad.  And doubtless the neighbors will have fireworks.

And here’s a list of Fourth of July novels.

1 . Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s The Linwoods.  This fast-paced novel, published in 1835, follows the fortunes of two families during the Revolutionary War. I wrote about it here.

2 . Richard Ford’s Independence Day is the second novel in Ford’s critically-acclaimed Frank Bascombe quartet.  The muddled hero, Frank, a sportswriter-turned-realtor, has high hopes for the Fourth of July.   He plans a road trip to visit his girlfriend at Jersey Beach and then picks up his teenage son to  visit several Sports Halls of Fame.  A great novel about American culture and confusion.

3.  Jill McCorkle’s Ferris Beach.  I read this ages ago.  From the book description:  Ferris Beach is a place where excitement and magic coexist. Mary Katherine “Katie” Burns and Misty Rhodes  are inseparable friends, sharing every secret, every dream-until one fateful Fourth of July, when their lives change in a way they could never have imagined.

4.  Howard Fast’s April Morning, a best-selling 1961 novel following the fortunes of fifteen-year-old Adam during the battle of Lexington and Concord.  Haven’t read it but have heard good things.

5.  Walter D. Emmonds’ Drums Along the Mohawk, a best-selling novel published in 1936.  The story of a young couple who settle in the Mohawk Valley in the eighteenth century and struggle to establish a farm.  As the Revolutionary War begins, they see their neighbors take different sides. This book was adapted as a movie starring Henry Fonda and Claude Colbert.

6.   Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain, winner of the Newbery Award in 1944. My husband and I both loved this in our youth. Johnny Tremain, a young silversmith’s apprentice, has a crippling accident and can no longer work with silver.   He finds a job delivering a Whig newspaper, and  gets to know John Hancock and John and Samuel Adams. Lots of history:  the Boston Tea Party, spying for the Sons of Liberty, and Paul Revere’s ride.   Loved this book in seventh grade English!

7.  Gore Vidal’s Burr.  I enjoyed Vidal’s essays and his novel  Justinian. The novel Burr is on my list.  Goodreads says: Burr is a portrait of perhaps the most complex and misunderstood of the Founding Fathers. In 1804, while serving as vice president, Aaron Burr fought a duel with his political nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, and killed him. In 1807, he was arrested, tried, and acquitted of treason. In 1833, Burr is newly married, an aging statesman considered a monster by many. Burr retains much of his political influence if not the respect of all. And he is determined to tell his own story. As his amanuensis, he chooses Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, a young New York City journalist, and together they explore both Burr’s past and the continuing political intrigues of the still young United States.

8. Diana Gabaldon’s A Breath of Snow and Ashes, the sixth novel in the bestselling Outlander saga.  The book description says:   The year is 1772, and on the eve of the American Revolution, the long fuse of rebellion has already been lit.  With chaos brewing, the governor calls upon Jamie Fraser to unite the backcountry and safeguard the colony for King and Crown. But from his wife Jamie knows that three years hence the shot heard round the world will be fired, and the result will be independence—with those loyal to the King either dead or in exile. 

9.  Gwen Bristow’s Celia Garth, a historical novel published in 1959.  Here’s the book description:  A bustling port city, Charleston, South Carolina, is the crossroads of the American Revolution where supplies and weapons for the rebel army must be unloaded and smuggled north. From the window of the dressmaker’s shop where she works, lovely Celia Garth, recently engaged to the heir to a magnificent plantation, watches all of this thrilling activity….

10.  Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.   This one belongs in the “far out!” category. A columnist at Barnes and Noble says:   “The Moon declares independence on July 4, 2076, officially freeing itself from the Earth’s vampiric clutches before it runs out of food, which the Earth has been forcibly importing with little regard for the wellbeing of the lunar population, mostly made up of criminals and exiles and their descendants. Brilliant, dated, and still an incredibly fun read, this book is slightly bonkers, but explores the exhilarating idea of revolution for the most basic reasons of all: the right of self-determination, for better or worse.”